(Note: Some parts of this article were published previously. Repeating those for emphasis and adding a few updates.)
The history of the United States is black, brown, olive, red and white. That is in alphabetic order of color. We are not color blind and white people have suppressed and oppressed people of color for centuries. The treatment of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latino Americans by white supremacists has often been ugly, violent, and shameful. Our histories are intertwined, forever linked by real stories regardless how some might like to revise them for their own comfort.
Black History in the U.S. is filled with well-documented stories that start with slavery. “The 1619 Project” while controversial in some circles, at least calls attention to some parts that have often been ignored or suppressed. There are still those who wish to suppress Black History by removing books and articles containing many of these stories. Another perspective of Black History includes people of color who are accomplished in every field from A – Z. Some are well-known, others remain obscure. A small sample include these ten inventions by African-Americans. https://www.country1071.com/2023/01/30/top-10-inventions-by-black-inventors/
There are covert as well overt practices that continue to contribute to racism today in the United States. Some white people seem unable, or unwilling, to acknowledge the bias of white privilege. It may be easier to blame others rather than accept responsibility for many of the issues that threaten the safety and security for people of color. Consider what we have witnessed in this ongoing story in the past 50+ years, often in graphic detail. It is no wonder that people of color fear for their safety.
It was apparently Rodney King who said, “Why can’t we all just get along?” and if you don’t remember who Rodney King was, here’s some background. King’s car was pulled over for speeding by four LAPD officers in 1991, and he attempted to escape on foot. After being chased down, he was repeatedly kicked, struck with batons, and stunned with Tasers, and he sustained serious injuries, including skull fractures and facial paralysis. The beating, which was surreptitiously recorded by a bystander and then widely broadcast on television, heightened racial tensions nationwide and rendered King a symbol of a perceived pattern of police brutality toward racial minorities.
Under public pressure the officers were brought to trial in 1992, but the jury acquitted three, and a mistrial was declared for the fourth. The verdict spurred some of the worst riots in U.S. history, resulting in more than 50 dead, thousands injured, and an estimated $1 billion in damages in the area of South Los Angeles. King pleaded for peace during the riots, famously asking, “Can we all get along?” The beating and the subsequent riots prompted widespread investigation of police conduct and the resignation of the LAPD chief. The officers later were indicted on federal civil rights charges, and two were convicted; King sued the city and was awarded $3.8 million in damages. He spent most of the remainder of his life struggling with substance abuse problems and was arrested numerous times, including at least once for domestic assault. His memoir, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption (2012, with Lawrence J. Spagnola), was published just weeks before he was found dead in his swimming pool at age 47.
Trying to resolve differences by means of violence seldom only makes conditions worse and more painful. We see this playing out in our current conditions of systemic racism, continuing police and contracted militants’ brutality to peaceful protesters. I saw it personally in July, 1967, in Detroit when the National Guard was mobilized to help quell the riots there. The Kerner Commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson and headed by Otto Kerner, governor of Illinois reported the following:
“Many Americans blamed the riots on outside agitators or young black men, who represented the largest and most visible group of rioters. But, in March 1968, the Kerner Commission turned those assumptions upside-down, declaring white racism—not black anger—turned the key that unlocked urban American turmoil.
“Bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination all converged to propel violent upheaval on the streets of African-American neighborhoods in American cities, north and south, east and west. And as black unrest arose, inadequately trained police officers and National Guard troops entered affected neighborhoods, often worsening the violence.”
The next month after that report, April 4, 1968, MLK, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
For more details, check out the following article and ask the question, what have we learned and how have we changed in 52 years? We are now four years farther on from this report and not much seems to have changed for the better. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/05/the-report-on-race-that-shook-america/556850/
It appears that the Kerner report did not shake America into new behaviors of conscious compassion over the past 55 years. If we do not find ways to live together peacefully in our communities in spite of perceived differences in matters of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion/spirituality, nationality and socioeconomic status, we will continue to make victims of others and end up with results that continue to divide and separate rather than bring people together in unity.
Racial identity shapes privileged status for some and undermines the social standing of others. I encourage you to see the following film if you have not already done so. I Am Not Your Negro is a 2016 documentary film directed by Raoul Peck, based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House.” Narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, the film explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, as well as his personal observations of American history. It was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards and won the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary.
I recommend two of Jelani Cobb’s articles in The New Yorker Magazine, the most recent of which is in the current issue dated Feb 6:
Another resource, if you want to learn from the perspective of an African-American parent is Ta-Nihisi Coates’ book, an impassioned letter to his teen-age son:
Finally, let’s ask ourselves, our friends and family, what are we doing to help solve the issues of bias and prejudice where we see it or hear it today? Tyre Nichols is today’s name. Tomorrow it will be another name, another grieving family. What can we do to make the world where we live a safer, happier and healthier place for everyone? Might we consider doing what John Lewis suggested in speaking up and letting our voices and our words be heard?
“I believe in freedom of speech, but I also believe that we have an obligation to condemn speech that is racist, bigoted, anti-Semitic, or hateful.” Conversations matter.
PS My wife, a history major, went to school and college in Oklahoma (1954-1970) and never heard about the 1921 Tulsa massacre until 20 years ago. That is a classic example of suppression.
I remember Rodney King. I was getting ready to graduate from Grad school in VA when that happened. It was perhaps my first real ‘face to face’ with the scope, extent and complexity of racism in the USA. My simple question all these years has been – Why does it still persist? I have heard, read and seen that many in the white majority have fought and still continue to fight against racism. So, it isn’t a universal attitude of ‘white’ against ‘colored’. So why is it that otherwise good folks want to deny or rewrite or even erase the history of racism in the USA? If we don’t accept who we are — all the good bad and ugly parts of us — we will always remain Us vs Them. We will never be US.
Thanks for the history lesson and the references. I will be reading up for Black History month…
The history of racism in the U.S. may be different from other countries because of a persisting attitude of white supremacy and the fear surrounding that ideology. I never understood it, even as a young person. There may be something about the fear of a white majority being in the minority but we are all minorities in many ways. Why we separate into islands apart from each other because of differences rather than finding ways that unite us also confounds me. Believing that we are stronger together, I have come to the conclusion that there are just too many people who prefer dividing rather than uniting. Those of us who believe systemic racism needs to be decreased significantly, ideally eliminated, keep on working to try and make things better for everyone regardless of all the differences.
According to the ‘Mahabharata’ – the Great War in which hundreds of thousands perished because of one person’s ‘ego-blindness’ – one of the greatest challenge for a human being is to overcome their ‘pravritti’ or intrinsic nature. In other words, even knowing that what they are doing is wrong, i.e. contrary to natural law, they are unable to bring themselves to do the right thing, even when ‘God Incarnate’ is advising them to do so. Perhaps that is one explanation for the behavior of the ‘dividers’ – they see the light, but they can’t or won’t walk towards it… it may take a few more generations. Until then, may the uniters follow their intrinsic nature…
Unable, can’t or won’t? As I reflect on my experiences over 8+ decades, my impression is that they could if they would. In other words, the Spirit is willing but the Flesh is weak? I believe it is more unwillingness than inability although I could be wrong. I know for certain that there are people who are learning disabled and I wonder if we should look there for more clues, the failure to teach and the failure to learn?
Yes. More often than not “the Spirit is willing but…” the deeply ingrained patterns are more powerful… It goes the other way too. You cannot stop the helpers from helping, even when it may put them in the way of physical harm…
Yes. There is also the teaching / learning aspect. Perhaps those are the relatively ‘easier’ challenge to take on?
Thanks, again for your thoughtful comment. Each of us needs to decide what we can do, what we are willing to do to help make for better relationships between diverse groups or between diverse individuals. There is such richness in diversity. I’ll end here with the words of John Lewis, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.”